The vast majority — most likely all, from what I can gather — of the films parodied on Documentary Now! are established classics that are sent up with great deal of affection. Not only does the show scrupulously reproduce the look and feel of these documentaries, but the best of the best, like this season’s “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” or last season’s Company riff “Co-Op,” wind up expressing the same themes and sentiments in a satirical form. Despite the self-deprecating niche quality of the show, starting with those stuffy Helen Mirren introductions, it’s clearly motivated by a love of nonfiction filmmaking in its highest form.
My Octopus Teacher is not nonfiction filmmaking in its highest form, despite winning the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2021. The Netflix sensation, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, follows Craig Foster, a free diver who plunged into the bracing cold waters near Cape Town, South Africa, and developed a bond with a young octopus he discovered in a kelp forest. Over the course of a year, Foster not only observes this creature but takes lessons from her about life, death, and the essential fragility of nature. The endeavor even improves his bond with his own son, who takes to diving and marine biology. To paraphrase Charlotte’s Web, that’s some octopus!
It should be said that My Octopus Teacher is widely beloved by critics and audiences alike. The review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes has it at 93 percent approval, and the user reviews on Google average to a staggering 4.9 stars out of five, which is a sign that people loved it and that it is not about women and/or persons of color. So perhaps it’s my jaundiced view as a My Octopus Teacher hater that “My Monkey Grifter” feels like it has a hostile edge to it that’s uncommon on Documentary Now!. Either that or the episode so thoroughly unpacks all the tacky pop psychology, New Ageism, and stylistic tics of the widely acclaimed film that it seems savagely on point if you were driven crazy by it.
“My Monkey Grifter” immediately gets the annoying tone of My Octopus Teacher right: The dreamy musical overlay, the shallow-focus photography, the stylized cutaways and titles. It eventually brings in reenactments, too, all of which is a reminder that Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), one of the great innovators of the nonfiction form, innovated many of the worst habits of modern docs. Our hero filmmaker is Benjamin Clay (Jamie Demetriou), a bespectacled naïf who’s inspired to make a follow-up to The Man Who Spoke to Birds, a critically reviled doc about an elderly man who was working on a bird-to-human dictionary. “As someone who had trouble communicating with people,” Benjamin tells us, “I was deeply touched by his efforts. Yet when the film was released, the man I had taken for a genius was branded a dotty old plonker.”
Benjamin’s gullibility made him a target for tabloid ridicule, but one of the funnier elements of “My Monkey Grifter” is that he falls not only for an obvious fraud but for the exact same fraud that conned him before. Now he’s the one working on animal-to-human translations, all while revisiting the theme of trying to become a better husband and father to a family that hates him. The question of how any of this monkey business improves him as a person is another solid dig at My Octopus Teacher, which offers up universal truths and bromides, but more often feels weirdly, uncomfortably narcissistic. Even an autobiographical documentary filmmaker like Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) never had the audacity to put “My” in any of his titles.
Nevertheless, Benjamin is excited to get an email from Dr. Mbeko Mwenda of the Kenyan Zoological Institute, who’s an admirer of his work (big red flag there) and wants him to check out Lulu, a monkey that’s shown a capacity for sign language. It only takes one look from Lulu at the Etherington Zoo in Ipwhistle for Benjamin to see the potential of this project: “There was a kindness in her face that had been absent from the people in my life while they peppered me with aggressive questions like, ‘Did you really think that crazy man could talk to birds?’ or ‘How could you forget it was Nigel’s birthday?’” With Dr. Mwenda offering a £200,000 grant for the film, Benjamin commits to a yearlong endeavor to better himself by communicating with Lulu.
The exchanges between monkey and man, using hand gestures Benjamin meticulously lays out on his “monkey board,” are nearly all affirmations: “Artist.” “I love that.” “Risk-taker.” “I want to see your films.” “Thank you. I feel supported.” And that’s all poor Benjamin needs to insulate himself from the hostile people he’s disappointed, especially his wife, who isn’t happy to learn he’s pawned off her belongings to fund the film while he waits for Dr. Mwenda’s £200,000 to get wired in. His connection to Lulu gets weird, like when he sheds his clothing to remove all barriers between them, and it gives him opportunities to wax philosophical. (“Does Lulu dream? And if so, does she dream about me? And if she dreams about me, am I a man or a hairless monkey?”)
The directors of this episode, Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas, love to plug in telephoto shots of Benjamin posing in nature as he narrates various faux profundities or gratuitous rack-focus shots of him at his desk. The way certain documentaries use film language is always an important layer of Documentary Now! — and gives episodes like “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” a visual texture that’s indistinguishable from its source — but here it’s part of the overall satirical strategy, poking fun at the array of slick “cinematic” touches that are now common in nonfiction.
The big twist in “My Monkey Grifter” is that Benjamin is being scammed by Lulu and his human keeper, who are manipulating him into stealing £500,000 in artwork from his rich father-in-law. In this instance, the episode resembles the great 2012 doc The Imposter, about a French con artist who tricks a Texas family into believing that he’s a long-lost relative who disappeared years earlier. In both cases, it’s about the mark believing what they want to believe rather than what should be obviously false. (That the writer of this episode, Seth Meyers, calls to mind the Nigerian-prince email scam with “Dr. Mwenda” is a nice bonus.)
Poor Benjamin will never learn. He may, however, make the shortlist for an Academy Award.
• One more annoying doc tic parodied here: The echo effect in reenactment dialogue. A very specific target, but it works beautifully when we get a soft-focus reenactment of Benjamin’s confrontation with his wife and she says, “You’re a terrible husband and a terrible father-ather-ather.”
• “I was already closer to Lulu than I had ever been to another human being. In her presence I felt no judgment.” One other “My” documentary this reminded me of: The abysmal 2004 film My Date with Drew, in which the director/subject tries to fulfill a 20-year-long fantasy by asking Drew Barrymore out on a date.
• Benjamin recalls being devastated about getting kicked out of his flat, “because that’s where I’d set up my monkey board.”
• “But I also felt joy knowing that she forever changed the kind of man I was. It wasn’t clear how I changed, only that it happened deep inside of me.” Direct hit!